Saturday, November 20, 2010

All Is Fair in Fair Trade, and Coffee Beans!

International Fairtrade Certification MarkImage via WikipediaBy Suzanne A Edwards

Eleanor Roosevelt once said, "It is not fair to ask others, what you are unwilling to do yourself". If you agree with this statement, then when did it ever become ok to pay two cents an hour to some factory worker in countries like China, Sri Lanka or India?

You would be up in arms if your employer tried to make you work all day for a mere two cents an hour. Even if you worked a twelve hour day, you would only receive 24 cents (providing no taxes were taken off that). In North America, many of us make that in one minute of work. If your employer tried to pull this on you, you would be calling the Ministry of Labour citing a long list of complaints against this unfair practice. You might even call your lawyer to report this injustice.

As unfair as this sounds, why does it continue to happen across the globe, and do these unfair employment practices have an effect in other areas?

The answer is a complex one, but in a nutshell, it can be explained something like this. Multinational companies are more concerned with their profit margins than the minor details of fair wages. Factory workers in underdeveloped nations are most often very poor and feel thankful to have a job in spite of poor working conditions or wages. In fact, for many of them, it is a means of survival.

So, with the money these multinational companies save in wages (even if you add in the costs to transport the finished product overseas), they still make a bigger profit than if they had factory workers in North America produce it at minimum wage. Once the product gets shipped back to North America or to other developed nations, it can then be sold at a lower cost to you, the consumer. This means these multinational companies sell more product as people will line up to save whatever money they can, especially in this economy. So, when you buy that great leather handbag for only $26 you can bet that it came from a factory somewhere overseas. Check the tag and more often than not, it will say, made in China or made in India, etc.

So you might be thinking to yourself, wherein lies the problem? Well, its kind of a catch 22, as more times than not, most people will be drawn to buy the cheaper product in an effort to save money in this global economy. Multinational companies love this arrangement, as it allows them to make bigger profits by selling more product. It seems that factory workers are surviving as a result of this substandard job, so why care then, if all the players seem to be reaping the benefits from this producer/seller/consumer relationship?

Around 40 years ago, someone did care and saw a problem with this relationship whereby everyone in this producer/seller/consumer relationship seem to be equally reaping the benefits except the poor factory producers/farmers. It was from identifying this lack of equilibrium, that the concept of 'Fairtrade' was born.

Although the concept of Fairtrade has been around for over 40 years, the formal labelling scheme didn't get off the ground until the late 1980s. In 1988, Max Havelaar launched the first Fairtrade label, under the initiative of the Dutch development agency Solidaridad. The first Fairtrade coffee from Mexico was sold into Dutch supermarkets. It was branded "Max Havelaar," after a fictional Dutch character who opposed the exploitation of coffee pickers in Dutch colonies. Since then, Fairtrade goods seem to all the buzz and larger grocers are now stocking their shelves with anything from coffee to beauty products and clothing all bearing the trendy mark, 'Fairtrade'. Fairtrade also became more recognizable as a result of stores such as "Thousand Villages" creeping up across north America showcasing the many fares that were a result of Fairtrade practices.

Similar to organic foods however, Fairtrade products will cost more, but you will be getting a superior product and one that was produced equitably with all members being respected. By buying Fairtrade products you will also be helping the environment. Yes, that's right, your purchase because it was equitable, will allow farmers to improve their outdated farming equipment by adopting more environmentally safe equipment/practices. In fact many examples of this trend can be seen in various parts of the world today, where the notion of Fairtrade practices were adopted. Many towns and cities around the globe are also eager to jump on the Fairtrade bandwagon, by applying to become a 'Fairtrade town' by ensuring that their local growers/farmers interests are being treated fairly. In Canada, Wolfville, Nova Scotia was the first town to become a 'Fairtrade town' on April 17, 2007. Since then, many other cities and towns worldwide have followed suit.

The next time you are out and about scouring the endless product lines that adorn the shelves of your local grocers or department store, take a few extra seconds and ignore the price tag, and simply take notice of the 'made in' tag. If you want a greener tomorrow and one that is based on respect and equitable treatment for all, you will consciously make a choice to buy 'Fairtrade'.

Like with most injustices in the world, change does not happen overnight. But if more and more people buy fair trade products, this will force multinational companies to rethink their current model and then someday perhaps these deplorable factories will be closed forever.

Written by: Suzanne Edwards

Creator of Bartholemew A Green Adventure Creating a greener tomorrow, one reader at a time

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